All aboard for e-learning - feature

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This feature was contributed by Frank Kappe, CTO at Hyperwave.

In the 21st century, the most successful businesses will be the ones that gain the optimum advantage from knowledge. Already, knowledge is one of the most valuable assets of any business. Using e-learning to build the stock of knowledge within the organisation can greatly enhance productivity and improve competitiveness.

E-learning is often considered primarily as an alternative to classroom based training courses, but for many enterprises it has broader potential for facilitating knowledge transfer. Most large organisations are aware that knowledge management is vital for their future success, but often do not know how best to implement it in practice. E-learning has a vital role to play in enabling companies to utilise their corporate knowledge base to ensure that relevant skills really are being acquired by staff.

One of the key criticisms of CD ROM based CBT (computer based training) packages, which were really the precursor of e-learning, was that organisations had no idea of the extent to which the courseware had been used, let alone how many people had actually mastered the content. This same risk is present with e-learning and knowledge management, unless there are mechanisms in place for assessing the success of the process and the degree to which relevant skills are being acquired. For this reason, providers of e-learning software designed for knowledge management need to offer features that enable the success of the process to be assessed.

Self-assessment and self-managed learning are vital ingredients in the whole knowledge management process. It cannot be stressed too strongly that knowledge management depends utterly for its success on the value that staff members attach to it as a source of information. To get people to realise the value of knowledge management involves the creation and maintenance of online knowledge content and associated e-learning courseware, and also full use of the system for acquiring skills and information.

Some incentives may be needed, at least initially, to encourage staff to “buy in” to e-learning and knowledge management. In this way a willing e-learning culture can be created. There may indeed be some longer term incentives linked to career development, but the underlying aim is to ensure that e-learning should become part of the job description.

The e-learning software should encourage staff participation through feedback and also assistance with the creation of content. Two of the most important steps in assured information delivery process can be title creation and feedback. The “creation” step provides assistance with adding small and often ad hoc chunks of information, and with making this available through the established e-learning system to everybody else. The feedback step has two components, one to allow trainees to evaluate the content of the course unit they have just completed, and secondly to help the creator of the unit improve it and make it more relevant.

Closely related to feedback is another important step, called assessment, which is designed to ensure that course content is personalised to each individual, based on their personal skill level and training needs. This is hard to get right and involves effort on the part of the company, but is essential to make the knowledge transfer process efficient and relevant.

There is evidence that e-learning is winning hearts and minds among employees. This is particularly the case in jobs such as sales or financial trading where time is literally money because earnings are linked directly to performance through commissions. For such people, the ability to learn without leaving their desks is highly attractive. For them, not only does e-learning save time, but also means they can acquire skills that improve their performance more quickly than they would if they had to wait for suitable classroom based courses. This immediacy of e-learning is also appealing for employers, being particularly useful at the induction stage for bedding in new employees. New staff can become productive almost immediately after they have gone through online induction training, rather than having to wait for scheduled classroom courses.

There is also evidence that e-learning has appeal right across the whole spectrum of employment, and not just where there is a tangible impact on pay. A number of large enterprises, among them Rank Xerox and Hewlett Packard, have reported demand from potential recruits, particularly younger ones, for access to e-learning within their jobs. When this is not available, such people are less likely to accept job offers.

Availability of e-learning can also reduce churn, making existing employees less likely to leave. The global IT systems house Stream International established its own internal training organisation called Stream University. The objective was to improve the education and skill levels of employees, and ultimately to meet business goals. But it turned out that the existence of the dedicated training centre providing much better than average e-learning facilities increased staff satisfaction and retention.

This in turn led Stream International to a radical change of its recruitment strategy, to become more focused on the potential of interviewees rather than on the specific skills they possessed at the time. The company had the facilities for transferring whatever skills were needed, and it was more important that people of the right calibre and character were appointed.

This is not to say that e-learning has gained universal acceptance. There is still resistance among some more conservative professions where the impact of IT so far has been marginal, and also from older staff brought up in the pre-IT era. However if e-learning can be shown to be an integral part of knowledge acquisition and provided it is applied judiciously, there are signs that these groups can also be convinced.

It is important for employers to recognise that e-learning is not the solution for all requirements, and that classroom based training will retain an important role. The best mix between e-learning and classroom training is probably close to 50/50.

Classroom based training remains best for teaching complex skills involving interaction, for example some management processes where role playing may be desirable. E-learning on the other hand works best for personal skills that need to be tailored to individuals’ needs. A classic example is the now ubiquitous Microsoft Word. A typical employee will only ever use 10% of the product’s functions, so a classroom course covering everything is not only largely redundant, but also makes it harder for individuals to learn those parts of the package that matter to them. They are blinded by too much information. E-learning allows the course to be tailored to the individual, weeding out irrelevant aspects of the package. In this context, e-learning is mid-way between a full classroom course and online help, but is better than the latter at conveying the desired level of competence quickly.

To be successful, e-learning in the knowledge management context needs to achieve a balance between “push and pull”. Employees need to be able to obtain knowledge or courseware on demand as they need it, whether this is to learn Word or absorb the company’s strategy in some area. Equally the employer must be able to bring relevant material to the attention of employees and have the mechanism for ensuring that this is done effectively.

This involves being as flexible as possible with the delivery of e-learning. A key point is that, unlike CD ROM based CBT, e-learning should allow the possibility of some interaction with course tutors or people with relevant skills within the organisation. It is important that the chosen e-learning package supports a chat room facility for immediate dialogue, and also the ability to submit queries by email.

Full interactive video though is neither necessary nor desirable as yet. The technology is too expensive, and in most cases there is no need for it. What is needed is full multimedia delivery of courseware, including video which can be useful for presenting short clips of speakers explaining key points, or demonstrating actions that cannot so easily be conveyed with words. Video clips are highly useful in courseware pertaining to field service for example.

According to the e-learning consultant and author Nicholas Bahra, one of the main challenges in e-learning lies in establishing proper standards and suitable validation. Clearly employers need this, but Bahra argues that this is equally important for staff in order to ensure that e-learning is relevant for them. E-learning should therefore contribute to the employee’s career development as much as to the employer’s more immediate needs. The two should coincide to a large extent, but there has to be some opportunity for employees to take e-learning courses, some of which might even be extra-curricular. They may be given access to the employer’s e-learning channels from home to gain skills that might not be immediately relevant in their jobs.

When it comes to skills transfer at work, e-learning still has one major frontier to cross. Despite all the circumstantial and anecdotal evidence, there is no direct measure of the business contribution e-learning makes. There is a measure of learning generally, well known within the training profession, called the Kirkpatrick model.

The Kirkpatrick model has four yardsticks for assessing the success of training, and can be applied to e-learning. Firstly there is the “smile sheet”, in which candidates are asked simply about their experience of a course. Here e-learning has been largely successful. Secondly there is the “evidence of learning” test, and on this front too e-learning has passed muster, through techniques such as Hyperwave’s “assured information delivery”. Thirdly there is application of learning, and this entails assessing whether skills that have been taught are being used. Here again e-learning has already proved successful, with obvious evidence that skills are being deployed. It is possible, for example, to interview staff six months after taking a course and ask them what they remember, and how much of that material or skill set they are using in their jobs. The fourth test involves business contribution, and this is where evidence is often lacking. Key measures here include reduction in costs, increased productivity, and improved staff retention. So far greatest success has been achieved on the last of these counts, with a number of organisations reporting statistically significant reductions in churn when compared both to their own previous record and to comparable companies in their sectors that have not made the same commitment to e-learning.

The future of e-learning, especially within the context of knowledge and skills transfer, is bright. In fact I would go further and argue that enterprises should have plans for adopting it if they have not already, or risk losing both staff and competitive edge to more enlightened rivals.

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